Concerns of censorship are arising in the Orange Unified School District after the newly hired superintendent shut down a library app that some parents said contained books that were inappropriate for children.
Superintendent Edward Velasquez announced Sunday the app, Sora, would temporarily shut down as district officials look into concerns from some parents – one of his first actions in his interim role.
“Virtual libraries are a critical resource for students to utilize, but they must have the proper safeguards in place to allow parents to choose what they feel is appropriate for their child and ensure students are protected from content that is not age-appropriate,” said newly appointed Velasquez in an email to parents on Sunday.
“Moving forward, a committee will be formed to review app content before apps are approved for installation on student devices.”
Greg Goodlander, President of the Orange Unified Education Association, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the association disagrees with the speed that the decision was made and that they were not initially consulted.
“Our concern is limiting access to literature to our disadvantaged students,” he said. “I’m frustrated that he did not consult with the educators that use this app before making the decision.”
“It is a disruption to instruction and learning that could have been done in a better way.”
Goodlander said he met with Velasquez and that they both agree they want to get access to a digital library backup as soon as possible. He also said educators need to be on the incoming review committee.
School Board Directs App Suspension Without a Vote
The decision to suspend Sora was made after parents publicly raised concerns at a school district board meeting about their second grade children reading books that are age inappropriate yet available to them through digital library apps on their school ipads.
During the board meeting on Jan. 19, one parent described the plot of the book “A Polar Bear in Love” her second grader found on an app, she said was called Library Pass, on her school issued ipad in which a male polar bear asks to marry a male baby seal when he’s older.
“To be clear, this is absolutely not a censorship discussion. I am not here to restrict students’ rights to information and to books. This is a concern with the lack of vetting and surveillance of digital libraries,” the mother told the board.
Another parent raised concerns at the same meeting about a book titled “The Music of What Happens” reading quotes from a book her second grade student was listening to with words like “fuck”, “shit” and which discussed rape.
The book, which is aimed at young adults, details a sexual assault against a character and a relationship between two high school boys.
Following the two public comments, Board Vice President Jose Ortega asked for the app to be shut down immediately. Board President Rick Ledesma agreed.
“This warrants response. You want your child hearing that? This is probably the one time that it’s been the most important to respond. Y’all talk about taking care of kids. But you allow this under the guise of education,” Ledesma said at the meeting to the audience.
But a discussion or staff directive on shutting down the app was not on the agenda and there wasn’t a vote taken on the matter.
Ledesma did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Hana Brake, communications coordinator for the district, did not respond to emailed questions from the Voice of OC Tuesday.
But some parents disagree and are worried that the move is censorship and on social media, they have raised concerns about the decision.
Darshan Smaaladen, a parent, called the decision in a Tuesday interview a knee jerk reaction that was implemented without a plan in place.
“We’ve got a lot of students that use Sora for both pleasurable reading and for their classes, but now don’t have another option. I do support, of course, parent controls being available or at least transparency,” she said.
She also said the “Polar Bear in Love” book was not on Sora when she checked her child’s app and only found the “The Music of What Happened” book.
Smaaladen said the board is a public entity and a vote should have been taken on the decision to suspend the app along with an investigation.
She also said the decision shows shortsightedness and worries that the suspension will last longer than Velasquez’ time as the superintendent.
“We have a lot of economically disadvantaged students and this punishes them the most, I will be able to purchase books on Amazon for my daughter,” Smaaladen said. “Our economically disadvantaged students don’t have that support.”
According to Ed Data, in the 2020-21 school year there were 12,904 socioeconomically disadvantaged students enrolled in the district. That year 28,000 students were enrolled.
In an email Monday, Velasquez addressed parents’ concerns on the decision to suspend Sora and said it was a temporary solution.
“In no way is it my intention to ban books or impose censorship: My goal is to ensure that our students are protected from content that is not appropriate for their age level and to give parents the ability to control what types of content their children can access,” Velasquez wrote.
“Digital libraries are an important resource for our students. It is my sincere hope to get a digital library in place – as soon as possible – that meets the needs of our families and keeps our kids safe.
New School Board Faces Criticism
The newly elected board majority has faced criticism from parents and teachers following their decision earlier this year to suddenly fire former Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen over winter break and appoint Velasquez in an interim capacity.
The decision raised questions if the move violated state transparency laws.
And now efforts to recall Ledesma, Ortega as well as trustees Madison Miner and Angela Rumsey are taking shape.
Similar concerns of censorship have popped in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District after they banned Critical Race Theory from the classroom last year despite district administrators claiming it wasn’t being taught.
In recent years, heated debates over how history is taught and what curriculum should focus have engulfed school boards across the country.
Meanwhile, Ortega has been called out by the First Amendment Coalition – a group that aims to protect free speech – after calling criticism from parents “slanderous” at the same public meeting.
At the meeting, parents and teachers continued to call out the decision to fire Hanson and the appointment of Velasquez for hours.
Ortega shot back.
“You can be liable for these slanderous comments,” he told parents at the meeting. “You need to be very careful of that so I’m warning you of that.”
“We have a first amendment right to criticize your public actions…,” a man in the audience interrupted.
David Loy, the director of the First Amendment Coalition, agreed with the man.
He called on Ortega to disavow his remarks and publicly affirm his commitment to the first amendment in a Monday letter to the trustee and the board.
“Critique of elected officials is democracy, not defamation,” Loy wrote. “An official’s threat of legal action against critics violates the First Amendment and undermines democracy.”
The next board meeting is scheduled for Feb. 2.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.